How are Zolberg-IRC fellows translating thought into action?

Photo: Ben Ferrari

This past October, the International Rescue Committee and the New School hosted a conversation on the global humanitarian challenges of today and the role of academies and social institutions in enabling humanitarian action. Six fellows — graduate scholars from across the New School — presented their work with the IRC.

With support from the Arnold Foundation, the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility and the IRC established a joint fellowship in 2016, where students and faculty have the opportunity to work with IRC field offices to apply the latest advances in social sciences and design to tackle the world’s biggest humanitarian problems.

From behavioral-informed interventions for stressed refugee teachers in Tanzania to working alongside displaced populations in Jordan, here are some of the solutions fellows have been working on.

Combining design and behavioral science to reduce violence against children in Tanzania

In schools within the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania — the third largest refugee camp in the world — 41% of teachers routinely practice corporal punishment. Jenny Liu, a Transdisciplinary Design scholar from Parsons, has been working with the the IRC to develop a teacher violence reduction and prevention program.

With a background in neuroscience, Jenny Liu has been designing program content and developing research tools to assess the impact of behavioral interventions for teachers. Some of the tools developed include gamified learning exercises for teachers to practice nonviolent discipline methods and emotional self regulation. Jenny additionally developed creative research strategies for field researchers to interact with teachers in more engaging ways and to refine prototypes quickly.

Jenny Liu, fellow from the Transdisciplinary Design program. Photo: Ben Ferrari

Developing communications software for resettled refugees in the U.S.

When a refugee arrives in the U.S., they’re assigned a caseworker for their first 90 days. The IRC is one of nine agencies in the U.S. that supports newly resettled refugees by offering English and cultural courses, job training, and help with registration for schools, benefits, and citizenship. Amanda Porter, from the Public and Urban Policy program at the Milano school and Yuxin Cheng, from the Transdiscplinary Design program, have been building an SMS messaging app to ease this transition and offload the administrative burden on caseworkers to focus on directly helping refugees. This will be open source so that other resettlement agencies can adapt it.

Amanda and Yuxin are currently prototyping this solution in the IRC’s Atlanta resettlement office. The software enables streamlined communication between caseworkers and refugees, and provides a shared calendar for employees from different departments to schedule clients and avoid double-booking, the ability to send SMS reminders in multiple languages and formats, and media libraries that hold translated audio recordings and messages.

Yuxin Cheng (left) and Amanda Porter (right). Photo: Ben Ferrari

Innovation as a philosophical ideal

Daniel Smyth started his presentation with a head scratcher: What’s a philosophy scholar from the New School for Social Research doing in humanitarian innovation? Well for starters, he’s helped developed a number of program evaluation plans, direct funding proposals, and public presentations for peer-2-peer learning groups for refugee teachers in Tanzania.

As a philosophy scholar, Daniel reflected on what it means to edify ideas for the sake of action, without sacrificing rigor — “meme-ing” well while meaning well — and turning ideas into action. He also reflected on the potential, and inadequacy, of helping at a distance. For Daniel, the answer lies in the potential of innovation work to improve humanitarian response at a systems-level.

Daniel Smyth. Photo: Ben Ferrari

Working with vulnerable populations in Jordan

This summer, four fellows spent eight weeks at the IRC offices in Amman, focused on solving several unsolved challenges identified through affected populations (such as Syrian refugees), IRC staff and local stakeholders. Alik Mikaelian, from the Transdisciplinary Design program and Zuzanna Krzatala from the New School for Social Research, are two of those fellows.

Before arriving in Jordan, Zuzanna worked in the office of IRC President David Miliband, researching the policies needed to take place to improve humanitarian conditions around the world. In Amman, however, she saw how policies played out on the ground and she began to understand the practical challenges faced by refugees. Zuzanna’s main focus was discovering ways to maximize the impact of cash transfers, by reaching more vulnerable people through better targeting.

Alik, who is a designer from Egypt, was able to lend her Arabic to support the Mahali Lab, a community-driven lab in Amman that supports and mentors those affected by the Syrian crisis to develop solutions to the challenges most affecting them. Alik worked closely with one team who looked at how refugees navigated a confusing healthcare system. Throughout her eight weeks, she questioned her role as a design researcher, as she was no longer conducting the research herself but doing it through local innovators and recognized the importance of better integrating affected populations in the process of building solutions.

Zuzanna Krzatala (left) and Alik Mikaelian (right). Photo: Ben Ferrari

After our fellows presented, IRC President David Miliband and Chief Innovation Officer, Ravi Gurumurthy had a wide-ranging discussion on the roots of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and how to build smart resistance to populism for the IRC/Vox Media podcast Displaced. Listen below and check out the show notes here.


Thank you to Taryn Turner, a fellow at the New School for Social Research, for coordinating this evening. Taryn is currently supporting the development of Airbel’s education projects, including a computer-assisted learning program for displaced children in crisis settings.

The Zolberg-IRC fellowship is made possible by the Arnold Foundation.